Short story by Michael Botur
The curtains are drawn. There can’t be people living here. Yellow 50s bungalow; lawn unmown. The letterbox is leaking paper. Still, the African kid following you on his bike – no helmet, no shoes – says it’s the right place. Bike-Boy is chirpy and has red cheeks. Bike-Boy loves to help. He’s like a goddamn Disney animal.
Trudging through the long grass of Mt Roskill to teach ESOL to refugees: it’s a cushy sentence to receive for pushing over the bookcase in your supervisor’s office up in Campus House at uni. Cushy because you were going to be charged for assaulting your supervisor if you didn’t beg for diversion. Your parents wrote these totally emo letters to the judge and Mum cried in court and you pleaded it down so teaching ESOL is your punishment but honestly: you feel you should retain the right to kill annoying people. And you could, if you wanted to.
That whole court charade, all that fake contrition? Lesson learned? Pfft.
You knock on the door then stand back in the overgrown grass. No one appears for ages. Finally an African woman opens. Ethiopian, she looks. Ethiopian is what you’ve been told to expect, anyway. She has these big white pretty eyes bulging out of her cheekbones, that’s the first thing that strikes you. The black braids, the black lashes, the stark eyes.
‘Heyyy, have I got the right, is this… ?’ You introduce yourself and pull out the sheet of paper Ruth from Probation gave you, with the lads’ names. ‘I’m here cause the court ordered me to teach ESOL to your kids or something?’
‘My nephews. They mother, they father, he is being dead.’
‘Condolences, man… er, anyway, I’m here to see …. How do you pronounce this? Neb-Yacht?’
‘Nebeyat,’ she says quickly, as if the name’s only one syllable, and shifts her body so she rests on the other side of the door frame. ‘He is inside. Come, Keee-vin. I am Shewaynesh. They are aunty.’
Inside the air is brown, dark. Every window is covered by a tablecloth with Ethiopian Jesus printed on it, keeping daylight out. This east African Jesus is bearded, with white robes, walking through lush tropical valleys.
The house gets darker and darker until you find yourself in a simple square lounge, five metres by five, with an ancient, cold fireplace and a two seater couch occupied by one boy, or man. Someone very large yet young-looking. There’s another, smaller male on an armchair in the corner. The two guys are watching – seriously? – MTV Africa, according to the logo, playing on a tiny 32 inch TV, streaming from a small computer. The screen shows some kind of Senegal pop music with slutty dancers and playboys in racecars weaving through the crowded markets of Dakar or Lagos or wherever, throwing fistfuls of bullets into the crowd like a lolly scramble.
The larger boy is wearing black sunglasses, camouflage pants and no shirt. The way he sits upright, he looks like some sort of a king, or dictator. He’s patting a knife on his thigh.
‘Sup, guys, I’m Kevin. Guys? GUYS.’
The younger refugee leans around his cousin. ‘What you like, Mr Kevin?’
‘Listen, I got some books here in my bag, see? B-A-G. Bag. This book’s pretty choice. WordFind. You guys do many of those back home, or…?’
The smaller boy offers you a packet of wafers. ‘You like snack?’
You chew a wafer suspiciously. It dries your mouth out so you crack open a Red Bull. The boy’s eyes widen as you drink it.
‘What’s your name anyway, dude?’
‘Rrrred Bool,’ he says.
‘Oh, cool.’ You hand him the rest of your drink. You search your backpack for a second book of word puzzles before you click. ‘Hang on – no, YOUR name. YOU. Who are YOU, dude?’
‘My name, it Berhanu Ammanuel Fisha Belachew.’
‘And your bro?’
The younger boy is smacking the butt of the can, patting the last sweet droplets into his mouth.
‘Your brother, dude. I can’t start the lesson til I’m 100 percent sure of his name. They gave me this little attendance register I’m supposed to fill out. Yo! Older Bro! Are. You. Neb-yot?’
‘He cousin, not brother,’ young Berhanu says quickly, lowering his can and glaring at the couch-king.
‘Right. Hey listen, we need to crack on with this learning-English shit else my arse is headed to jail.’ You flick a light switch on.
Instantly the older boy, Nebeyat, is on his feet. He leans his forehead into yours. This guy is huuuge. Even though he’s slim, his gravity bends the air. Big shoulders. Good knuckles. A fighter’s body.
‘I no am want light on this Oromo, this child,’ he booms, pointing at his cousin. Then he thumbs his chest and says, ‘THIS man, me? This man Amhara.’
‘That’s your name, or… I don’t understand, sorry… ?’
Before the older one flips the light off and returns to his dark couch you’re left with a final impression that he doesn’t look much like the other dude at all. He points to the youngster. ‘Russ-i-a is him,’ he says, ‘And America is I am. Oromo he; Amhara me. Amhara like Mengistu!’ He thrusts a brief fist in the air. Beneath his sunglasses, his cheeks bend in a smile.
‘Are you sure you wanna call him Russia, though? Aren’t Russia and America almost at war?’
‘WAR, IS!’ claps the couch king, then he points a finger right in front of his cousin’s eyeball. He’s chewing something which stinks and makes his lips red. ‘Is war, yes!’
You lay photocopied wordfinds in front of both dudes. Only the smaller boy attempts to complete the work. He’s grateful, engaged, willing to learn.
The older one, Nebeyat, just stares at his music videos with his sunglasses on, sitting in that king-pose, muttering criticisms. He’s not like his little cousin. He’s not like anyone.
You can’t stab people directly in their faces, but you think about it a lot. You don’t start the day angry, it’s just that people irritate you and the only tool you have is a crafty brain. Uber drivers, students in your ANTH309 tutorials, old neighbours peering over the fence as you use your samurai sword on a dummy swinging from a tree in your back yard. Irritating homeless people at the bus stop. Neighbours having noisy parties you aren’t invited to. People on Reddit who disagree with you. It’s hard to contain the rage.
You reluctantly go to this student social club party on New North Road hosted by this Somali chick Awane– no, Ethiopian? Somali? You’ve never been sure where she’s from, she’s just always in the student mag for winning scholarships and internships and protesting. The party is held in a special room within the city council building and it’s full of pretentious alphas from the student social committee and the mayor’s there in the corner, schmoozing, and it’s so hard to keep a clean façade that finally you have to leave before you burst. You find a drunk, camp boy in the lobby, invite him to come have some private fun. He thinks you’re going to smoke something. You lead him down the steps and away from the music. You move through a dark cleft between buildings. You know alleyways no one else ever will. The two of you sprint along a wall, then it’s a shortcut through the park before you boost the kitchen window of a house with nobody home. After, when he’s lifting his body up the fence to escape, you pull him down, wrap your arms like pythons around his shoulders and collarbone and skull, apply pressure to the chokehold to the count of 100, put him safely to sleep. You’ve done it twice before. Afterwards there was nothing in the paper about someone dying. Usually they wake up unharmed. Usually.
You return to the party, return to the people in the button-up shirts, the women in golden hijabs and dashikis. You endure the difficult conversation, put on your normal mask. Know that if you wanted to badly enough you could execute everyone.
Shewaynesh explains more and more as you enter the house each Saturday afternoon for another slow lesson in a hot, sticky curtained room with Ethiopian Jesus watching over. ‘Welcome you us, Kee-vin,’ she always says, making your name sound exotic and spicy. She shucks corn cobs over the sink. It’s nice to see more and more photos on the fridge each time. Looks like she’s been going to church with Berhanu. They’re building a family. Nebeyat is not in the picture.
The third time you visit, there’s a photo on the fridge of little Berhanu with large eyes in a uniform that’s far too big for him, standing in some smoky camp of tents. Hard to believe that little enthusiastic teen in the lounge with the bright eyes, the dude sharpening his pencil in excitement over your visit, used to be a child soldier. There’s a dude in the picture dressed in camouflage holding a Kalashnikov behind his head and stretching – a dude who looks a lot like Nebeyat. You open the curtains to let a little light onto the photo. Hopefully today you can take down a Jesus or two, illuminate the boys in the lounge, get their eyes off MTV. Shewaynesh comes up beside you, tapping the old photo and says, ‘Rebel, Berhanu he rebel, he have to be, Mengistu kill his family. His mother, she is my sister and he KEEL her with he machete.’ With that, she yanks the curtains shut so no bullets can find the boy. Nebeyat watches us in the reflection on the TV screen.
Fourth Saturday, you lie on your belly on the floor with Berhanu and explain why C is sometimes a ‘suh’ sound and sometimes a ‘kuh’ sound, writing circus and circle in big plain letters for Berhanu while he copies notes, using his Hello Kitty eraser with pride.
Nebeyat has spent the entire lesson with the shades over his eyes aiming his fingers like a gun at the TV screen and chewing something. When you press him to tell you what the digraphs Ch and Th and Sh sound like, he stares at you vengefully, still tapping the knife he cradles like a kitten. Still shirtless; still wearing camo pants and dog tags and those immovable black glasses.
‘Guys, how would you feel about doing a mock interview with each other, to practice your English so you can get jobs?’
‘I have job!’ Berhanu pipes up, squeaky and enthusiastic. ‘When I not am study, I am make for Domino’s pizza!’ He rises a little bit off his chair as he mimes his job proudly, showing his gums as he grins, stretching his arms as he tells his excited story. Nebeyat balances this by staring at you cold and hard. He thinks Berhanu’s enthusiasm is pathetic.
‘How bout you, Nebeyat? Did they give you a job at Domino’s too?’
Berhanu makes a loop-the-loop motion with his finger on his temple. ‘This manager, he say Nebeyat, he no work. He too anger.’ Nebeyat snorts. On the screen is another strange African gangsta music video. Gleeful soldiers with bandoliers of bullets, men on chairs half-buried in jewels. Nollywood music on autotune. Little kids shooting uzis at each other.
‘This is me am work,’ Nebeyat says, lifting his huge sockless size 13 foot, toeing the TV screen, ‘Soldier: this Nebeyat work. Him pizza, him Domino’s? Is work for woman.’
Still seated, still patting his knife, he speaks more words than you’ve heard him say so far put together. ‘Here is person,’ he says, indicating Person A with his left hand. ‘Over here is money.’ Money is his right hand. Then he puts his hands between the money and the person. ‘But here is applicashi-on, here is passa-port, here is visa, here is fucking, how say, fucking tunnel. Is TUNNEL. And not fit. Big man NOT down, not crawl for tunnel. Big man should, should, should tunnel come to HE.’ He points his sunglasses at you and stares hard. In four weeks, you have never once seen his eyes. Nor have the curtains been opened.
‘Hoop is what you wanna say, dude, jumping through HOOPS, not tunnels – but I feel ya, I feel ya.’ You stick out your hand to slap Nebeyat’s casually. He examines your hand, lifts it up to see if there’s something underneath it.
On screen, some kind of Big Man dictator on the back of a pickup truck is driving down a dusty main street under palm trees, waving at admirers. The Big Man dictator wears a beret and medals.
‘Fssht, they are dream to warrior.’ Nebeyat thumps his chest. ‘Nebeyat: HE warrior.’
‘What, you got combat experience, dude? Oh! I almost forgot.’ You rummage clumsily in your backpack for your print-outs. ‘I was reading about your country on Wikipedia and I was like Holy Shit. About motherfuckin’ Mengistu. The Butcher of Addis Ababa, eh?’
Berhanu gasps and looks away, muttering a prayer.
‘Am I saying it right? Men-gis-tu?’
Berhanu makes the sign of the cross on his chest. Nebeyat grins from the couch, scratches a shirtless armpit. He even lowers his shades a fraction.
‘So you had like the nationalist guy Haile Selassie, the rasta guy, then this fella Mengistu Hailemariam comes along? And he’s like a Communist and real repressive and shit? And he got revenge on the other tribe, eh, the Oromos? And they called him the Butcher of Addis Ababa? Sounds epic – no offence. What side were you guys on?’
Berhanu covers his little mouth and shakes his face, mumbling ‘Not-not-not.’ Nebeyat leans back cockily, laces his fingers behind his arrogant ears.
‘Sorry, awkward. Um, anyway, guys, we just got another three minutes before my time is over so– ’
‘Your time is over saying who?’ Nebeyat gives some growled instruction to the other kid, leans over the far end of the couch and slaps him.
Berhanu rubs his cheek. ‘He want to know who are telling you orders.’
‘It’s, God, it’s… this is hard for me to say: It’s Corrections, okay? Like, probation? Police, judge– they tell me to come here.’
Nebeyat snorts and smirks and claps his hands and knees. His large white teeth and pink gums are exposed. ‘You are creemenal, is excellent, is good,’ he says at last. ‘Tell Nebeyat your creem. I have cut off man ear and feed him ear, he eat him ear,’ he says. ‘TELL NEBEYAT.’
‘Just assault, man. Common assault… with a blunt instrument. But I got diversion.’
‘Instrument? You keel him with guitar?’
‘A bookcase. I pushed it on him.’
A white smile spills on his face and leaks from chin to ears.
‘Book, heh heh. Keel, heh heh.’ He claps his hands decisively, gets up and starts pacing. ‘Meester Job, Meester Domino’s pizza man think he big man: I want KEEL him. I want CHOP de face. This why Nebeyat no servant. Nebeyat, he is… .’
Nebeyat is still searching for the right word when Shewaynesh knocks on the wall and says the lesson’s up. She invites you to share a cup of sweetened condensed milk and some biscuits; you grimace, take them and promise to eat them later. Berhanu and his auntie Shewaynesh follow you to the door; The Couch King gets up and joins them for once, slinking through the shadows. He reaches the door step, looks at you evilly. ‘Nebeyat is God. Is right word?’
‘Um… only if you’ve got the power of, like, life or death and smiting someone?’
Nebeyat smiles at that. He smiles like he smiles in the background of the computer desktop photograph. A photograph of Big Uncle Mengistu with his hand on Nebeyat’s neck and Nebeyat folding into the man.
Job interviews make you want to strangle, choke, kill, burn. They make you want to throw acid in a man’s face, like you saw in that Uganda documentary in ANTH 404.5. You feel like melting off your parents’ faces, too, as they fill your wine glass with trembling, liver-spotted hands and tell you what job interviews their Probus Club arranged for you this week.
You do your best to interview well, but the nicely-presented Perfect People seem to sense the frustration in you. They can call it evil if they want, but you think of it like this: you won’t have to bring the pain so long as these people show you fealty. Respect. Deference.
You get calls every day to tell you you’ve made it to the shortlist for some job that would’ve been lucky to have you, but unfooooooorunately another candidate was just that liiiiiiiiittle teency bit more qualified, at least according to Candy from Manpower. She personally phones and gives you a cruel spark of hope before taking a full 70 seconds to draw the let-down out in a gentle decrescendo.
By the tenth rejection, you’re mad enough to put hits on these people that doubt you. ‘Y’know what, lady?’ you rasp over the phone at Jasmine from Jobsource.com, ‘I got a friend who could make you eat your own ear if you ever, EVER fuck me again.’
It’s days like this you need a little perspective. You need to hear about the place where if you want to take the life of someone who’s wronged you, you can go ahead and do it.
You don’t even realise you’re stomping round to Nebeyat’s place til you’re on the doorstep, late on a Thursday. He nods as you come in, like he’s saying you’ve chosen correctly. You bring him a gift: Grand Theft Auto Hit & Run. Nebeyat nods, looking pleased, and points down towards the Playstation, ordering you to get the game going. Berhanu skulks in the corner looking uncomfortable as his nephew runs around Vice City bashing in heads with his baseball bat. Berhanu seems to have looked up to you as a mentor, but that’s the way you feel about Nebeyat. You wouldn’t have even had to take the risks you’ve taken in your life if you had a brother as bold as Nebeyat.
He Hit & Runs a man’s skull into a signpost so hard it bends the metal and your hand reaches out to Nebeyat and he slaps your palm in solidarity. The two of you hang out late into the evening, drinking Red Bull, then you return lunchtime Friday and play Postal and Fortnite and Jarhead for hours, and Sniper Elite and Dead By Daylight and Bulletstorm and Haemorrhage. Saturday afternoon, while Berhanu quietly lies on the floor, scrawling childish letters in the workbook you’re supposed to be helping him with, you and your new best bro are laughing at Inglourious Basterds and throwing popcorn at the TV. You watch Natural Born Killers next then Sin City then Reservoir Dogs after. Nebeyat loves the bit where they cut off the guy’s ear and he drags the couch closer to the screen and points at Berhanu and makes a slicing motion with his fingers and the two of you cackle together.
As the credits roll, you notice Berhanu behind the couch, as if he’s dressed in a black suit, crouching in darkness, outlined in white TV glow. You’re chewing this peppery khat weed Nebeyat has given you. It makes you impatient and you find yourself snapping at Berhanu to bring you a drink and a smoke.
‘Wisha, befit’ineti!’ you snap at the boy and you both laugh. Wisha means dog.
‘MM! MM! Almost forgot! Look what I picked up from Camo & Ammo!’ You unzip your bag as fast as you can and pull out the army uniform. Sure it’s mothballed surplus from the 70s but it’s dark green and it’s got patches sewn on the chest and brass buttons and it’s crisp and pleated.
Nebeyat’s teeth and gums take over his face. He hoists the uniform up to the light, lays it down on the couch, waltzes around the room with it then promises he’ll be back. He trots away to his bedroom and returns, clad in green, tall and noble. He is wearing black boots. His chest is puffed up like a pillow. His black plastic eyes point proudly at the ceiling.
‘You look ready for war, bro.’
Nebeyat agrees, and presses a fresh chunk of khat into your lips.
You march down to Domino’s, Nebeyat’s boots thudding on the pavement. The sky is overcast, far too dark for Nebeyat’s shades, but he won’t take them off. He struts past the laundromat, past the Western Union and the dole office and the Hindi spice shop and Lamb Traders and marches into Domino’s. Shop owners look out as he passes. They tut and point and make calls on their phones.
The manager on duty at Domino’s looks African – Ethiopian, then? He knows the score – or he ought to. There’s something expectant and fearful about his body language, the way he tucks the other couple of pizza guys back into the kitchen, arms himself with a rolling pin. He seems to have been expecting this. The white tiles stretch ahead of you. Your penis tingles. Everything goes silent.
‘We begin by you hold heem, Keevin,’ Nebeyat finally decides, and you reach across the counter and try opening the little locked gate to the kitchen. The manager bops your hand with his rolling pin and you gasp and suck your knuckles and Nebeyat uses this as an excuse to attack, vaulting the counter and yanking the rolling pin out of the manager’s hands. The third time the rolling pin comes down on the manager’s head it breaks and the man shrinks onto the tiles and hugs his legs. Nebeyat leverages himself between the wall and the till, raising his body off the ground to allow him to stomp the manager’s head more effectively. When he’s done flattening the guy’s skull, Nebeyat pushes khat onto a piece of pizza.
You grab Nebeyat’s sleeve and yank him away.
That uppity piece of ass Awane, the one who’s always putting on socials and protests, the one with her face on all those student council election signs? The one who loves following rules with the perfectly braided hair and the gentle voice? Turns out she’s Ethiopian and she suddenly comes into focus. There’s a war on and you want to know where the stands. You walk into the student break room as she’s making a coffee and she gasps as she spots the t-shirt you’re wearing. It’s got Mengistu printed on it, waving to a crowd. You found the shirts on eBay so you bought you and your new best friend matching Mengistu gear. Berhanu and Shewaynesh were shocked speechless and Awane’s having the same reaction as those two cowards. You try shut her up, explain that you’ve been volunteering on weekends to teach English to the refugee community from her fascinating country, so she should be happy.
She waggles a finger. ‘Not all aspect of my homeland are thees fascinating,’ she says, sternly. ‘Thees Mengistu, the Red Terror? His name is being curse to my people. A sacrilege word. A phrase we say only when spitting.’
‘Who are your people, then? Cause my mate reckons Mengistu’s all good.’
You realise Awane’s friends are staring at you. The devil’s name has made them prick up their ears.
It looks like Awane’s mouth is full of wasps. ‘Oromo are my people. You meet any Ethiopian person, chances are they’re Oromo. Oromo suffer. Oromo in exile.’
‘Not my mate Nebeyat that I’m tutoring. You should meet him. He’s Amhara. He reckons they’re the best.’
Some of the Model United Nations Council cats have their mouths hanging open and they’re tilting their heads forward, hanging on her words. ‘This is Nebeyat Fisha, you’re talking about? That’s the guy, hm? You have no idea who you’re dealing with, Kevin.’
She beckons you into the corridor. ‘We’d heard he sneaked out of the country,’ she whispers, glancing over her shoulder. ‘We have a list of people, people we’re concerned about. They’ve, they’ve… infiltrated. Contaminated the quota of refugees. People wanted for war crimes.’
‘What do you mean list of people? What, like you’re Nazi-hunters or something? You mean this guy’s like some kind of bigshot?’
Awane grabs both your shoulders and aims her forehead at you. ‘Just a kid, same age as me. But a bad one.’
‘We insist he be deported,’ interjects one of Awane’s friends, ‘We shall contact the police this very night!’
‘Nebeyat Fisha, he be-a the HENCHman, the devil,’ adds another.
Big man NOT stoop, not crawl for tunnel.
‘I’ve lived here just over half my life, Kevin, and I tell you thees: there be nothing “good” about the government putting Oromo and Amhara together in the same house. Nothing good about giving amnesty to murderers just so they can say they’ve filled their refugee quota. Disaster, this is! If you had seen the things Mengistu’s dogs did to my people, to the Anuak, to the Ogadeni, to the Omo. But most of all to the Orom– .’ She bears her teeth, shakes your hand off hers. ‘To me.’
The afternoon drags. Embarrassment and shame has turned, during your last lecture, into glee. You’ve got a free ticket to take somebody out. A critic of Nebeyat is a fair target. You can’t wait to tell him you’ve decided to silence Awane.
You vault the turnstile to get your train, tap your foot impatiently all the way, leap out as soon as the train stops and scuttle to Nebeyat’s house as quickly as you can. Disney Bike-Boy approaches, says Hi, dings his bell, sees what you’ve got in your hand and bikes away.
Shewaynesh opens the door, steps behind it. She’s wearing the door as armour.
You’ve picked up a long hard bottle of wine on the way and you pat it against your leg as you search the house for your man.
‘Tell me where he is.’
‘Nebeyat, he Immigration they come, in white car, with police.’
You walk hard at Shewaynesh until she can’t back up any further. ‘SERIOUSLY. I want to see my friend.’
‘HE NO IS HERE! HE DEPORTING! HE PRISON!’
The house gets increasingly dark as you move through until you find Berhanu in the corner of the lounge, holding his pencil case and Hooked On Phonics book.
Left for you, folded neatly on Nebeyat’s knife are the black glasses. You lift the glasses, push them on your eyes. You can feel the greasy warmth of Nebeyat’s nose on them.
‘I am so happy this danger man he gone,’ Berhanu says, his pencil case and workbook clutched in his fingers.
You shut the door of the lounge and slide on the shades. The world is dark. ‘You sure he’s gone?’